Plastic Alternatives: Start-Up Challenges
The European Parliament officially announced this year that single-use plastics will be banned as from 2021.
As a start-up with a smoothie station, we were very pleased to have received so many remarks from customers who suggested that we should “do something about our plastic cups and straws”, because “then our healthy solution would truly be perfect”.
What they don’t realize, however, is that finding ecological alternatives that tick all the boxes is not as easy as it sounds. Here’s the story of our journey to find ecological cups and straw alternatives, including the challenges of our eco-quest.
Plastic Alternatives and Alberts Smoothie Station
To give you context, Alberts is a start-up founded in 2015 by two young men on a mission: to help people eat more fruit and vegetables anytime and anywhere with the Alberts Smoothie Station. Combining robotics and AI, we developed the world’s first smoothie robot that prepares fresh smoothies on the spot with just fruit, vegetables and water – nothing else.
I joined the team in 2017 as the Marketing Manager, and it’s my job to listen to consumer feedback. As excited as people are about the smoothie robot, our customers were also asking us to switch to more ecological packaging. So, we listened.
Our search for eco-cups
Currently, our smoothie stations use PET cups, which can be recycled. When they are thrown into the right recycling pile, they can be made into new recycled cups for reuse.
The truth is, though, that 70% of PET plastic never makes it to the recycling process.1 Why? The plastic needs to be sorted and cleaned correctly, because it takes just a small fraction of contamination to make the entire batch of PET unusable.
So, we are continuously on the look-out for environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Alternative #1: Testing with PLA plastic cups
The first contender for Alberts were biodegradable PLA cups. PLA plastic, or polylactic acid, is a bio-based plastic. It is made from renewable raw materials such as corn-based resin.
The problem with PLA cups is that they are rather fragile, and they deform when you add hot water (60°C or higher). At Alberts, we’ve chosen to work with blend-in-cup technology to reduce water and food waste, and to increase nutrient retention. So, when we make our smoothies and soups, the cup collects all frozen ingredients after which, hot, filtered water is added for easy blending while achieving the desired temperatures.
The result? The PLA cup started crumbling, which created quite a mess as you can imagine! Also, the seal that we place on top of our cups while blending puts too much pressure on to the fragile PLA cups, which made them crumble as well.
Alternative #2: Was switching from plastic to paper a better alternative?
Our experiments also included paper cups. However, there are still some difficulties to solve if we were to go this route. More specifically, with these cups, we noticed that:
1. the blender seal is too strong which deforms the cup
2. the bottom starts leaking and/or
3. the coating inside the cup detaches.
And, of course it doesn’t look as nice when you can’t see the bright soup or smoothie colors inside the container!
Alternative #3: We settled for bagasse cups
The best solution so far turns out to be bagasse cups. These cups are made of sugarcane pulp, which is:
- strong enough to withstand the force of the blender
- hot water resistant
- entirely bio
- OK compost
Since we’re also working on a soup machine (a hot alternative for our smoothie vending machine), we are currently also running experiments with bagasse and paper cups. As we’ve just established, these types of cups are hot water resistant and therefore make for great candidates! On our radar are also promising new technologies such as those used to make grass-based cups.
The fact that bagasse cups are tree-free and made of sugarcane waste streams is a big one as we make the switch from plastic to eco. And seeing as the lining inside the cup is made of PLA, the cups are officially “OK Compost”. The challenge for the future is, however, to set up a collection system that allows for efficient industrial composting.
Before we can introduce these cups, we’d have to find a manufacturer to make them a size that fits our smoothie stations. We still have some more experimenting to do, but by the end of the year, we’ll be introducing our eco-cups to our customers.
But what about reusable cups?
This is a question we get often.
It would be quite a challenge to make “personal” reusable cups fit our machines, because they would be of different shapes and sizes. Of course, if we created Alberts branded reusable cups to sell together with our smoothies, that would already be more attainable, though it would still be quite an investment (especially for our customers).
But there are other challenges to be considered as well, such as food safety. We need to be able to ensure that the cups are perfectly cleaned at all times. This is an issue you don’t have with disposable PET cups, of course. However, if we can count on the client to have a professional team using professional cleaning devices so that we can guarantee food safety at all times, then reusable cups will definitely become a possibility in the near future!
Plastic straw alternatives: using edible straws made from apples
Initially, our smoothie stations used plastic straws, since the available eco-straws weren’t up to the standard that we wanted to offer our consumers— especially as bamboo and paper straws don’t have a very long stability in liquids. And offering steel straws to everyone would turn out to be an expensive switch!
|Bamboo Straws||Paper Straws||Steel Straws|
|Short stability, Affordable||Short stability, Affordable||Long stability, Expensive|
But, we met Wisefood, the start-up that tries to find a new purpose for the residual material from the apple juice production, which is normally disposed of. They discovered they could transform the pulp into edible straws!
The Superstraw, as they call it, holds its shape in cold drinks for over 60 minutes, and even up to 2 hours in cocktails. In coffee or tea, the edible drinking straw lasts about 20-30 minutes. By using wheat and fruit fibres, Wisefood was able to create an alternative, which is completely biodegradable in approximately two weeks. Or you can simply eat the straw once you finished your drink of course. Superstraws are made using ingredients from Germany like apple pomace and grain. This way, the organization can save unnecessarily long transport distances and protect the environment at the same time.
So, what's next for Alberts?
Switching to ecological alternatives for single-use plastics turns out to be easier said than done. Nevertheless, our team at Alberts wants people to make healthy food choices with respect for the environment. After launching the edible Superstraws this summer, Alberts is striving to launch a more ecological alternative for PET cups by the end of this year and reusable cups in the course of next year.